`Blind Spot' offers insight on Hitler's circle, habits

Poignant recollections by fuhrer's secretary

April 11, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Since the most offhand or intimate actions have become entertainment on reality television, the TV lens has lost what used to be its biggest asset: its power as a visual lie detector. These days, whether you're watching politicians or contestants for a dream date, you can't help wondering about the hidden agendas behind their presentations to the camera.

With formality and restraint, the makers of Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary have restored the persuasiveness of videotaped testimony. They do little more than edit down 10 hours of dead-on interviews conducted in 2001 with Traudl Junge, one of Hitler's private secretaries from 1942 to 1945. (They also intercut her recollections with Junge herself watching the footage and occasionally elaborating on a point.) The camera stays at one remove; the soundtrack is silent except for Junge's voice. She speaks in German; the filmmakers provide English subtitles.

Their accomplishment is enormous. Patiently taking in Junge's eyewitness account of Hitler's inner circle without any prodding or embellishment, Andre Heller (who conducted the interviews) and Othmar Schmiderer (who worked the sound and camera) respect her attempt to grapple with heretofore unspoken truths. They allow her the dignity of coming to her own realizations.

Depicting Adolf Eichmann as a bureaucrat of atrocity, the philosopher Hannah Arendt located "the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us" as "the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil." Without diminishing Eichmann's responsibility for crimes against humanity, she explained how mundane, "rational" routines protected him and men like him from confronting the horror that they generated. But "the banality of evil" has itself become banal. Too many historians and dramatists exploit the concept to lend a patina of meaning to any portraits of totalitarian regimes, including sketches of civilians clinging to normality as their government enacts genocide.

Without any special pleading, this spoken memoir of a sheltered Bavarian girl brings home what artists and intellectuals often reduce to "banality" but is actually the complex, booby-trapped meshwork of everyday life. When Junge took her job with Hitler, she escaped the constrictions of living with a divorced mother slaving for a tyrannical grandfather. She was ripe to see Hitler as a Fuhrer-Knows-Best figure. Yet Junge doesn't forgive herself for youthful neediness and naivete. As the movie goes on, she displays a gnawing urge to understand her own obliviousness and complicity in a horrifying regime.

You may find yourself bemused as Junge testifies to Hitler's amiable paternalism and fondness for his dog. But her accreting of gemutlich details gradually pays off. Without the greeting-card image of Hitler playing for hours with his adored canine, Blondie, the blood wouldn't curdle when Junge describes the dictator testing cyanide pills on his pet.

There seems to be a contradiction when Junge says that she was never aware of the "Final Solution" and that Hitler never spoke of Jews in his various retreats. After all, as Hitler holes up in the bunker that will become his tomb and begins dictating his last testament, he spews his usual venom targeting Jews as the pestilence eating away at Europe from within. But Junge is being candid: Even at the end, Hitler explained his hatred of the Jews to her not in human terms, but as if they were an abstract plague in a vile Wagnerian cartoon. Ultimately, the vertiginous chaos of Hitler's last days signaled even to Junge's blinkered consciousness that she lived in an upside-down world. Still, her thoughts revolved simply around what she could do when her all-seeing fearless leader was gone.

After Junge escaped the bunker, she spent the rest of her life wondering how she could have served a loathsome ideology. (She died on Feb. 11, 2002, hours after the film's premiere in Berlin and days after the release of her book, In the Final Hours.) Every day, Junge says, she'd feel a pang when passing the Munich statue of Sophie Scholl, a member of the White Rose anti-Nazi group who was executed at the same age Junge was when she was taking Hitler's dictation. Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary isn't an act of expiation but a gift of understanding. It provides harrowing proof of the spell a dictator can cast on generally decent people - on people whose most grievous flaw may be their dutiful nature.

SUN SCORE: *** 1/2

Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary

By Andre Heller and Othmar Schmiderer

Rated R

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Time 90 minutes

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